The Bill Evans trio had been playing together for nearly two years by the time these dates for Sunday at the Village Vanguard were recorded, but the group was under-recorded because Evans, ever the perfectionist, was reluctant to commit “final” performances of these compositions to vinyl. Fortunately, a date on June 25, 1961, is documented pretty much in its entirety on this album and the follow-up disc Waltz for Debby.
Ten days after these recordings were made, bassist Scott La Faro, a key member of the trio and a sparkling jazz bassist, was killed in an automobile accident.
Evans didn’t believe in his talent, particularly in the early years of his career, and had to be persuaded by Orrin Keepnews to record for the Riverside Label. Evans felt he lacked natural talent and so worked incredibly hard to develop his playing. His first recording, New Jazz Conceptions, received positive reviews but did not sell at all.
Evans went on working as a sideman with a variety of musicians, including Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, and George Russell. He then put in a stint with Miles Davis, backing Davis, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley. He played with Davis for about 10 months before once again assuming a leadership role and recording the album Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Then it was back to Miles for the famous Kind of Blue sessions. Davis had Evans write the liner notes for the album, further enhancing the mystique of the classic set.
Evans believed that the trio should be a meeting of equals, with the bass and drums taking on a more active role than the timekeeping to which they were usually relegated. This concept is heard very clearly on Sunday at the Village Vanguard–LaFaro plays around the chords and is able to compliment Evans’ piano stylings while Motian is able to provide much more coloration than the usual drum work.
The result is the most breathtakingly beautiful music imaginable, and almost definitely the best jazz trio work you’ll ever hear. It is clear that the three musicians were listening and communicating with each other at the highest possible level, and that energy makes listening to the performance exciting even though most of the tracks are fairly mellow in nature.
Sunday at the Village Vanguard kicks off with LaFaro’s composition “Gloria’s Step” presented in two takes. The piece demonstrates another side of LaFaro’s talent, that of a composer, and makes one truly mourn the loss of such a talent at the age of 23.
The first thing you’ll notice is that pretty much any jazz pianist who came after this, and certainly any pianist who worked extensively in the trio format, was influenced by Evans. If you listen to another pianist after listening to Evans, though, it will sound different, no matter how much the pianist was influenced by Evans’ work. This is because part of Evans’ unique “voice”, his chord voicings aside, was his touch and ability to finely nuance his playing.
“Solar” provides the trio with an energetic workout, giving Motian, in particular, a chance to increase the energy level. Again, it’s incredible to hear how far LaFaro’s lyrical bass work is from just walking the chords. There are moments on the album when you’ll wonder whether Evans or LaFaro was the sideman in this group–and that’s as Evans wanted it.
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Evans had a real thing for waltzes–one of his most famous tunes is “Waltz for Debby”–and you get a few instances on this recording as well. “Alice In Wonderland” is almost as transcendent as “Debby” in its lyrical 3/4 swing, its melody heartbreakingly simple and beautiful. “My Man’s Gone” is also a ballad, albeit a much slower one.
The kind of grace needed to play a jazz waltz is something most pianists just don’t quite have, but Bill Evans had the ability to play them as if there was no effort involved. The CD concludes with another LaFaro composition, “Jade Visions”, a tune that recalls some of Herbie Hancock’s explorations (a bit, anyway). But whereas Hancock would have played a piece like this in a more muscular and intensive fashion, Evans plays it very, very quietly.
The Keepnews Collection reissue of Sunday at the Village Vanguard contains four bonus tracks, these being alternate versions (recorded at the second Sunday set) of “Gloria’s Step,” “Alice In Wonderland,” “All of You,” and “Jade Visions.” It’s worth noting that these performances are just as good as the ones that were actually released on the original album, a rarity for certain. This brings the album’s total listening time to over one hour, which is appropriate now that we are no longer constrained by the amount of music that could be fit onto a vinyl album.
In 2005 Riverside released a 3-CD set titled The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961. This release marked the first time that the group’s entire sets from the June 25th performances have been released with the exception of the 12-disc set of Evans’ Complete Riverside Recordings. While I own the Keepnews Collection reissue, I definitely recommend the complete set–it’s reasonably priced considering the historic nature of these performances.
You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about individual solos here. That is because this is one of those albums that you are better off listening to than reading about. Whatever I say here is only words, and really can’t begin to convey the intimacy and communication you’ll receive from listening to the recording. Even Bill Evans, one of the most articulate musicians in all of jazz, knew that.